What does it mean to belong, to have a place to call your own? Who gets to determine what your home is? What it could be? These are some of the questions asked by Debra Granik's new film, LEAVE NO TRACE.
LEAVE NO TRACE opens with Will, played by Ben Foster (HELL OR HIGH WATER), and his teenaged daughter Tom, a debuting Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie, camping somewhere in the woods of Portland, OR. It quickly becomes apparent that this is not a temporary getaway for the pair but in reality, a full-time endeavor. This is what they call home, living as hermits in a deeply wooded area of a state park, where they spend their days hunting, tending to their camp, and other mundane activities. The excitement in their days comes from Will showing his daughter how to survive in the woods to avoid being noticed by the local hikers, tourists, and loggers that periodically wander through the woods near their campsite.
Eventually, though, they are spotted, and it's not long before Will and Tom are brought in by the local authorities. Here is where their journey really begins, as they try to navigate the social services system and a mostly-foreign civilization, while maintaining their sense of self and trying not to have their family unit broken apart in the process.
Granik has crafted a film that very much feels like a companion piece to WINTER'S BONE. Here, she trades the Ozarks of Missouri for the backwoods campsites and dense forest of the Pacific Northwest, but still remains focused on people living on the fringes of society trying to make it day to day. The feeling of being in a world that is obviously our own but yet wholly unfamiliar permeates nearly every moment of LEAVE NO TRACE, just as it did her earlier work. As we watch Will and Tom search these rural communities looking for a place where they can be safe and whole as a family, it is clear that even though these people have rejected society, they still long to be a part of somewhere, to feel a sense of community.
A lot of people will end up seeing this film due to the presence of Ben Foster, and he does not disappoint in the complex role of Will. He has steadily established himself as one of the top actors of his generation. In Will, Foster has crafted a nuanced portrayal of a decent man, who while being consumed with fatherly love for his child, is still deeply damaged by a past that goes unexplained but is easily understood. It would be simple to play this character as a melodramatic bundle of tics and odd behaviors. Foster chooses subtlety at every moment though, and leaves you aching to see him find contentment.
Much of the advertising for LEAVE NO TRACE has focused on comparing Mackenzie to Jennifer Lawrence (MOTHER!). It's an easy enough comparison to make; Mackenzie plays a strong young woman, who is wise beyond her years, struggling to help her troubled father. There are definitely echoes of Lawrence’s "Ree Dolly” from WINTER'S BONE in Tom but Mackenzie stands on her own with a realistic and nuanced performance. It doesn't feel like she's acting when she plays Tom and that sort of naturalism is exactly what you want in a film like this. I don't know if she'll have as strong a career as Jennifer Lawrence, but this is an assured, confident debut. Thomasin is one to keep an eye on for sure.
Mackenzie and Foster are supported in the film by Dana Millican (PORTLANDIA) and Granik regular Dale Dickey (IRON MAN 3). Everyone in the film gives performances up to the standards set by Foster and Mackenzie but they leave space for our attention to always focus on the melancholy journey of our leads.
This is not an easy film to digest but a deeply rewarding one if you give yourself over to it. It is methodically paced and is more concerned with bringing you into the mindset of someone who chooses to live outside the system than it is with typical conflicts and resolutions. If you're willing to meet the film on its own terms though it has much to say about what it means to be free, loved, and at peace.
LEAVE NO TRACE opens theatrically in select cities starting Friday, June 29th
It was screened as part of the 49th annual NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL